Review: Paul Merton's Impro Chums, Ludlow

No script, no set, no plan – as comedy goes, Paul Merton’s Impro Chums should never work.

Comedian Paul Merton is joined by wife Suki Webster on stage in Ludlow. Picture: S&B Photography
Comedian Paul Merton is joined by wife Suki Webster on stage in Ludlow. Picture: S&B Photography

But, as the hundreds who packed into Ludlow’s Big Top Theatre last night for the latest show at this year’s arts festival will testify, work it most certainly does.

The premise is simple, the execution devilishly difficult. The Have I Got News For You captain asks the audience for an idea – be it a place, job, type of movie, whatever – and he and his Impro Chums then make up and act out an amusing sketch on the spot.

He was joined on stage last night by his wife Suki Webster, Richard Vranch (the pianist on hit Channel 4 show Whose Line Is It Anyway?), Niall Ashdown and Steve Steen.

The first task given to Merton and his chums by the crowd was to make up a story on the hop about Mongol leader Genghis Khan and his washing-up gloves, with the audience instructed to shout ‘Die!’ at any one of them failing to be word perfect or showing hesitation.

A crazy start – but just the beginning of a surreal but brilliant night of comedy.

The comic and his Impro Chums act out a sketch inspired by an audience idea. Picture: S&B Photography
The comic and his Impro Chums act out a sketch inspired by an audience idea. Picture: S&B Photography

Next, Merton left the theatre with audience member Pat to make sure he could not hear what was going on.

While he was out, Vranch, with the help of the crowd, came up with an obscure job – which Merton would then have to try and guess using clues on his return to the stage. While paintballing.

The job? Dressed as an astronaut, in Egypt, making the ropes for a zeppelin shaped like a camel which can go underwater. Good luck, Paul! But he got there in the end with some hilarious clues, including Steen’s “I have just bought a plant. I called it Robert.”

Steen took centre stage as a Serbo-Croat fish-loving shrapnel collector, with Merton faithfully translating both spoken word and verse as Vranch played on piano.

And there was also time in the first half for a scene in an abattoir featuring Webster and Ashdown performing themes including Shakespeare, Bollywood, in the style of both horror and silent movies.

Audience members were encouraged to write thoughts and suggestions in a bucket during the half-time interval and this formed the backbone for much of the second half of the show.

Merton was playfully soaked by his off-stage wife during a scene at the barber’s, and she then spent the rest of the show running away from Merton every time he came near for fear of the favour being returned.

Twin toes, running up Clee Hill from Ludlow and waterfalls were tackled with equal gusto.

The final sketch, the little-known Shakespearean play ‘The Twisted Flax Mill’, fell a little flat compared to all that had gone before, but could not detract from what was a terrific night’s entertainment in the grounds of Ludlow Castle.

Their ovation was well deserved.

Wayne Beese

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